September 1, 2009 / 4:15 PM / 10 years ago

Mitchell, Israelis to meet Wednesday in New York

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace will meet two Israeli officials in New York late on Wednesday as part of his push to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, U.S. officials said.

U.S. envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell talks during a news conference after his meeting with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak at the presidential palace in Cairo July 27, 2009. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

The envoy, George Mitchell, is due to see Yitzhak Molcho and Mike Herzog to follow up on his talks in London last week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on bringing about a freeze on Israeli building of Jewish settlements.

The Obama administration hopes to announce a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks this month during the U.N. General Assembly but the pieces have not yet fallen into place, notably because of a dispute over Israeli settlement building.

It is possible there could be enough progress for Obama to hold a three-way meeting with leaders of Israel and the Palestinians in New York during the U.N. General Assembly, an Obama administration official said.

Palestinian leaders have ruled out resuming talks, which have been stalled since December, unless Israel carries out a total freeze on West Bank settlement building in line with its commitments under a 2003 U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.

The Obama administration has taken the public stance that Israel must halt all settlement activity, including so-called “natural growth” under which new homes are built within existing enclaves to accommodate growing settler families.

Netanyahu, whose coalition has a strong pro-settler wing, wants to maintain “natural growth” in the settlements Israel aims to annex in any final peace agreement.

While saying Washington still wanted a complete freeze, a senior U.S. official last week suggested it would not stand in the way if the Palestinians accepted something less.

Palestinian officials on Monday categorically rejected anything other than complete freeze, although analysts believe it may be difficult for them to stick to such a position.

As part of its effort to get Israel to resume peace talks, the United States is also urging Arab states to take steps toward normalizing ties with the Jewish state.

One idea is for Arab states to allow Israeli diplomats to open “interest sections” — a possible precursor to someday establishing full diplomatic relations.

Saudi Arabia has made clear it does not plan to make such gestures for now, according to diplomats familiar with the matter, but will not object to other Arab states doing so.

U.S. officials declined to provide the time or venue for Wednesday’s meeting, in keeping with their effort to keep the diplomacy under wraps.

While Molcho is a top aide to Netanyahu and Herzog to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, diplomats played down expectations for the meeting, noting that Mitchell is expected to return to the region later in September for further talks.

(Editing by Bill Trott and Todd Eastham)

Additional reporting by Steve Holland

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